I get a lot of students in my classes who really struggle with backbends. Backbends are some of the most challenging yoga poses there are, and as a yoga teacher I am really careful about introducing them in my classes, especially as so many people have a really limited range of thoracic (upper) spinal motion.
Why are backbends so damn tough?
This has to do more with the whole of the front body than the actual flexibility of the spine, although that is a major component of backbends. The front body is made up of the quadriceps. hips, waist, chest, lower spine, upper spine and shoulders. So, it might not be your spine and back muscles that are tight in your backbends and preventing you, it might be tightness along the front of your thighs, hips and torso. Most of us are tight as a result of sitting for long periods of time. This shortens the hip flexors and hamstrings, which make it difficult to tilt the pelvis (posteriorly), but rather forces us to lift the tailbone up and bring the spine into a less than happy position.
So how do I open my front body to help me with backbends? I hear you ask...
Think about adding in some daily stretches for the quads and hip flexors, especially if you sit for long periods. Poses I love are low lunge (make sure to squeeze the glutes of you back leg as you do this to engage your quadricep!), low lunge against a wall, King Arthur pose against a wall and Bridge pose.
This pose targets the quads and hip flexors, making it a great way to open out the front body in preparation for backbends. It simultaneously stretches your hip flexors and quadriceps, putting your knee into flexion and your hip into extension. It's not the most comfortable of yoga poses (it is VERY intense for the quads) so make sure you set yourself up with a comfortable blanket under the knee first, as you'll want to stay here for about two minutes. Keep engaging the glutes of your back leg (not the bent knee) and pressing your foot into the wall.
1. Start on your hands and knees with your back facing a wall. Bend your knees and back up, placing your right knee against the wall.
2. Press your right shin and the top of your right foot against the wall.
3. Step your left foot forward so that your foot and your knee at the wall are about the same distance apart as they’d be in a Low Lunge. Take a breath.
4. Place both hands on your front knee and lift your spine. If your knee is uncomfortable, make sure to pad it sufficiently.
5. Refine it: Lift your hip points up, draw your front ribs and navel in, (toward the wall behind you) and reach your arms toward the ceiling.
6. Take 5-6 slow deep breaths before releasing the posture and taking your second side.
This pose is great for stretching out the hip flexors and quadriceps simultaneously, putting your knee into flexion and your hip into extension.
1. Start on a mat on your knees and extend your right leg forwards coming on to the foot. Have your back knee bent on the floor. Prop a blanket under your knee if it's painful on the hard floor.
2. Press your toes of the back foot into the floor, tucking them. This will help to stretch the quadricep and hip flexors even more intensely. Keep lifting up with the chest on the inhale.
3. Take 5-6 slow breaths before releasing the posture and repeating on the second side.
1. Start on your back on the floor and bring your feet to the floor.
2. Walk your feet in until you can reach your heels with your hands, then walk them away about 2 inches.
3. Press your lower back down into the floor and curl your tailbone downwards.
4. Take an inhale and slowly peel the hips up off the floor while squeezing the glutes. Keep the knees in line and don't let them wing outwards.
5. Keep lifting the hips until they get as high as possible, ideally as high as your knees. I like to interlace my hands under my back at the top and stay here.
6. Take 5-6 slow deep breaths before releasing the posture and taking your second and third rounds.
Make sure to practise these poses regularly, preferably daily, to help benefit your backbend practise. Add them on to the end of your workout to stretch out the front body and you will start to see more openness in the quadriceps and hip flexors with practise. I hope these 3 poses help you towards more ease and enjoyment in your backbends, let me know how you get on in the comments below. xx